For the next four weeks, Peter, Kora and Eun beat Blake and his cronies again and again, honing their teamwork by leaps and bounds. Blake’s entourage used the same moves (said the same words, even) but Peter and his friends were constantly refining, constantly evolving. Soon, they were able to move like a single, unified consciousness.
Four weeks in, the attacks stopped. Peter and Kora were initially puzzled, but it all made sense when Eun put it into context.
“Dissona’s evolving,” she said as Kora rummaged through her locker.
“How can that be?” Peter demanded. “Didn’t you say she would avoid any form of—”
“I doubt it’s a choice,” Eun said. “As much as Dee desires stasis, existence won’t tolerate it. We’ve been beating the ass off her goons, so she’s decided to bench them for now and save them for later. Or something to that effect.”
“Yeah,” Kora grunted, shoving a stack of books into the upper cabinet of her locker. “But it won’t accelerate her ascendance; from an arcane perspective, she’s already injected a set amount of energy into her minions. There’s a kind of…” she struggled to find the words. “There’s a kind of pact you commit to when you use that style of magic.”
“Sounds like a 401k,” Peter said. “You’ll be penalized for withdrawing your money before a certain date. You have to let it sit and grow.”
“Right,” Kora nodded.
“Can we shift focus?” Peter asked. “Now that Blake’s leaving us alone, we can ease up on the go-team-go stuff, right?”
Kora looked at Eun. “What do you think?”
“Sure.” Eun shrugged.
“Yes!” Peter pumped his fist and grinned widely. “I was getting tired of all those post-battle debriefs.”
“I was enjoying them,” Kora muttered.
“We’ve got two months ’til prom,” Peter said. “What do we do to fill the time?”
“Back to the basics,” Eun said. “Prep our stuff, keep an eye out…that kind of thing.”
“Great,” Peter smacked a fist into his palm. “I got a shitload of stuff I need to get ready.”
Kora raised a finger. “A word of advice. I’ve been through a lot of these—you know, gear up, make plans, put on your game face…and there’s one thing that always slips everyone’s minds.” She regarded her friends with a weighted look.
“And that would be?” Peter prompted.
“Try and have fun with it.”
“Destination, not the journey, right?”
This, of course, came from Eun.
While Peter, Kora, and Eun had spent a month fighting Blake, Holly had spent a decade trekking across the Territories.
Ten years ago, she’d found a way to kill the spider-beasts that roamed the wastes. It had taken six months to hone her magical abilities to the point where she could do so. During that time, she’d taken shelter in a cave, feasting on the pallid insects that roamed its depths. They had tasted pungent and cloying, but they’d kept her alive.
Once she could kill the spider-beasts, she’d struck out across the Territories, not just eating her attackers, but fashioning armor from their gleaming carapaces. She was now clad in a rough patchwork of chitinous shell.
Ten years of roaming the Territories. Ten years of monotony and drudgery.
A deep part of her understood that it was only survival instinct that pushed her magical progress. When she’d been training under Estilian, she’d experienced day after day of teeth-grinding frustration. It was only when he’d threatened her life that she’d finally been able to tap her potential. And then later, when she’d been driven into the cave by the gnashing spider-beasts, the prospect of death had motivated her to master Senkilo’s Cannon.
Other spells had followed. She could wield something akin to a laser whip; it cut her enemies’ forelegs and thoraxes into bleeding chunks. She’d also mastered basic telekinesis; during a fight, she could grapple with her assailants using her mind alone, disrupting their momentum and lining them up for devastating combos. By this point she was an accomplished mage, but something sinister had happened along the way: the Territories’ magic had begun warping her mind.
Either that or it was warping reality.
Holly knew that a journey across the Territories took six months, seven months tops. But she’d been walking the wasteland for over a decade. She’d followed the Raging Centaur (a constellation whose bottom-most star pointed to the south) with unwavering diligence. She wasn’t circling or straying off course. But she kept going, because she had no other options. She’d invested far too much to turn back now.
One year ago, the spider-beasts began to wear her face.
Their thoraxes were topped by a blonde-haired, blue-eyed head. She’d destroy them all with blazing fantails of eldritch weaponry, littering the hardscrabble badlands with leaking body parts, but she couldn’t bring herself to destroy the heads. Back when they’d been blank-eyed insects, she’d gone for their skulls every time—damaging their brains was the easiest way to bring them down. But after they’d stolen her face (that’s how she’d thought of it, which resulted in the mental label of face-stealers) she couldn’t kill them in the same manner she had before. Holly found other ways to do it; usually, she would slice the limbs out from under their bodies, then target their legless torsos with a heavy blast.
After her arcane kill-fests, face-stealer heads would lay scattered across the earth, dotting the Territories with countless variations of Holly’s decapitated visage. A lot of them looked angry, some looked sad, but most just stared blankly ahead. As she sawed the meat out from the beneath their chitin, she would keep her eyes fixed on her grisly task, ensuring that she didn’t have to look at her macabre reflection.
Holly was surrounded by reminders of herself, yet she couldn’t bear to acknowledge them.
This was how she spent her second decade in the Territories: killing monstrous, unthinking doppelgangers, devouring their insides, and slogging across an unforgiving hellscape. Her muscles became gnarled and ropy, her skin became dry and spotted. Her hair—now a long, gray-white veil—cast a constant shadow across her features. During her fifteenth year in this brutal perdition, she began to wonder if she’d lost her mind. Had she ever been a cheerleader, or was that just a dream? It seemed absurd that she existed at all. The only reality was this endless trek and her relentless pursuers. The entirety of her world had been reduced to her meaningless quest, the unfeeling sun, and eternal combat.
Was this Hell? She didn’t know.
All she knew was she had to keep going. And so she did.
She kept pushing through an alien nightmare, ironically surrounded by the one thing that was most familiar to her:
Her own image.